Biggest losers

Like the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, ABC's Lost has found the world a very different place upon returning to civilization. The complex, convoluted desert-island serial resurfaced last week (9 p.m. Wednesdays, Channel 7 in Detroit), and possibly no series was more impacted by the long 2008 writers' strike. Lost is one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-something dramas that demands constant involvement, and the prolonged absence of new episodes allowed ample time for attention spans to drift elsewhere.

It's not hard to spot how much belief a network invests in a show. With its sprawling cast and most episodes shot on location in Hawaii, Lost is among TV's most expensive series to produce. And given ABC's recent decision to follow NBC's lead and combine its network and production studio into a single unit to slash costs (yes, even television feels the recession; layoffs could begin this week), the future for hour-long primetime dramas continually seems to be going the way of rabbit ears. For the American Broadcasting Company, Lost is the Great Night Hope, a showcase series alongside Grey's Anatomy, and especially significant in light of ABC's axing such promising hours as Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone and Dirty Sexy Money.

So even though DVD sales of Lost Seasons 1-4 remain brisk, producers were invited (begged? persuaded?) to herald the return of the series last Wednesday with a one-hour special, "Destiny Calls," before the two-hour season premiere. "Destiny" attempted to recap and explain all four previous Lost seasons for both new and returning eyeballs. Nice thought, but it came off a lot like your first college history lecture: droning and complicated.

They surely didn't waste money on production values. The hour consisted of series creator and co-executive producer Damon Lindelof and executive producer Carlton Cuse sitting side by side, talking through clips of past episodes in numbingly formal "conversations." You may recall Cuse from his former works like Nash Bridges, but a first look at the curious young Lindelof, who made such comments as "the island is like the biggest AA meeting you'll ever see," was revealing. It must be disconcerting to discover the mastermind behind your favorite show resembles the weird clerk at Best Buy. And the true mad genius, executive producer J.J. Abrams, was nowhere to be seen.

Most surprising, however, is that all the ballyhoo and the "Destiny" special helped not at all: the season premiere of Lost — sponsored by Mercedes Benz, no less — attracted the smallest opening audience in its history last week, 11.4 million viewers. That's a 26 percent drop from 2008's season debut. Writers' strike hangover? Dwindling primetime numbers overall? Possibly. But a little gamesmanship from those FOXes down the block can't be overlooked.

Apparently FOX thought the redneck warblings from Louisville auditions for American Idol, far and away last Wednesday's top-rated show, were so compelling that the 8 o'clock Idol telecast ran three minutes past its usual ending time — or, three minutes into the start of Lost's triumphant 9 p.m. return. Sneaky. That also may explain why Lie to Me, the new FOX procedural starring Tim Roth that premiered seamlessly after Idol, beat Lost's booty in its first half-hour but faded badly down the stretch.

I was totally wrong about Lost. When it first arrived, I could not envision how it could sustain interest in a bunch of strangers on a remote island. Yet it has, through intricately layered plots and more characters than a Comedy Central roast. Even Gilligan's Island lasted three seasons. But Lindelof & Co. already have targeted 2010 as Lost's series end, and maybe they're prophetic. If last week's audience decline wasn't a fluke, the coming weeks could grow dicey for Lost and ABC. As the show's villainous Ben Linus once told the fated John Locke, "Destiny, John, is a fickle bitch." Don't they know it.

Millen as villain: He made my stomach twist when I saw his grinning mug doing "expert" analysis for NBC's football playoff games. He will reprise those duties for NBC's coverage of Super Bowl XLIII next week. And now comes word from New York Daily News that Matt Millen, the blowhard who almost singlehandedly devastated my beloved Detroit Lions franchise, is in talks to replace Tony Kornheiser as third man in ESPN's Monday Night Football booth. Permit me to vomit.

It's not that I don't think Millen should ever work again. He never actually lived in Detroit; I'm happy he's not coming back. But when you think of all the qualified, experienced workers you know who are begging for employment nowadays, to see this bumbling baboon completely screw up as Lions GM then land daintily on his feet transcends rage. There simply is no retribution for incompetence in our society anymore. Maybe a Super Bowl halftime rocket will go astray and strike Millen in the temple. With his luck — and skull — it'd probably just bounce off.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]